Day 114: Mysore to Vattakannal
5am. On the second floor, the closest spot with a wi-fi signal, I curl up on the couch in the corridor to post a blog entry. When I return to the hotel room to pack my bag, Shay and Aviel are moving slowly around the room, like a couple of slugs lost in space. None of us talk much as we make motions to put our bags in order. The quiet could be a result of minimal sleep, the onset of dopey hangovers. It could be a strained silence between Aviel and I after a rather awkward encounter in the laundry room the other night.
We check out of the hotel before nighttime has finished its shift and pull our motorbikes out of their respective parking spots in the dark. Revving up one after another, our three bikes drift onto the highway and urge forth, following the constellations of early morning vehicles.
At 9am we stop to eat cookies on the roadside and relieve our bladders. Our convoy continues. Lining the pavement are trees with branches that twirl up and stop abruptly, as though they all have those flat-top haircuts trendy in the 90’s. We’re roaring through the forest of Tamil Nadu. A sign pops up– a picture of an elephant, and below, RIGHT OF WAY.
We ride. We soar through villages. We wave back to the kids waving to us through the back of the bus window.
The sun is out finally, but the air is dry and cold, biting like a set of teeth post-popsicle. Then, even as I think it, the chill drops and melts into the pavement as we approach a mountain boasting 27 hairpin turns, each marked with a numbered sign. All downhill. Shay is careful not to drive too far out of reach; I see him looking for me in his rear view. I follow, attempting to portray a balance of nonchalance and fierce confidence.
He is stopped at one of the switchbacks, right on the bend. I pull up and stop behind him. He takes off. I watch him motor out of sight around the next turn, the 16th hairpin. When he has disappeared, I dismount my bike, deciding to get a picture of it beneath the sign. It topples downward onto the slanted pavement. Petrol sprints from the gas tank and down the road like it’s been kept captive. I dash forward to my double wheeling wu-tang wonder, and put in a heroic effort to lift her from the eighty degree angle, but struggle and fail on the hot pavement, cringing at the bent mirror and messed up light. Losing strength quickly, I settle on shakily holding the massive motorbike with pin-straight arms at a 180 degree angle soas not to lose any more petrol.
A massive hauling truck tilts down the switchback towards me, turns on the hairpin and stops. A young Indian guy about half my size runs over and lifts the bike up, propping it on its stand as though it were a mere bicycle. Thanking him, I snap the stupid photo that caused this whole charade, then the truck and I go our separate ways in the same direction.
When I catch up to Shay and Aviel again, it’s on the other side of the mountain. We’re at a junction where a big truck pulls onto the shoulder. Shay takes this moment to get the driver to fill his tires with air for 5 rupees. We drink a strange, white, savoury beverage with leaves in it from a lady on the roadside.
In town, we stop at a sweet shop so the boys can eat cake while the worker asks if I will give him some Canadian money. I go fish out a lone loonie from the pocket of my backpack on my bike and come back. Presenting it to him, he crinkles his nose.
“How much is this?”
“That’s a loonie,” I say. “One dollar!”
“One dollar? Why don’t you give me ten?”
Back on the road, we drive through more desert-y brownness, but it’s a beautiful brownness, with palm trees poking up from the Earth’s graham cracker crust until we reach windmill country, which stretches out for hundreds of kilometres at every head turn. When I pass one turbine near the road and look up at its massive, white arms stretching up to the sky like a yogi saluting the sun, I realize what an average living room fan looks like to an ant.
Our motorcycle troupe stops at one dusty town propped up on the perpendicular point of two main roads. A couple handfuls of men wrapped in skirts and button up shirts silently sit on steps and stools sipping piping chai served by a woman in a sari and a holy man swathed in marmalade scarves. After a short selfie shoot with one group of men, we fucking go. It’s 3:30pm now, and with 80km left, it’s time to skedaddle. On the map, the last 60km look like an intoxicated flea marked the route. Translation: uphill.
The first 20km leads through a forest that grows ever thicker, the little huts and houses ever fewer. The road saunters past a palm tree grove whose canopies challenge the clouds, mirroring my mood, then morph into something wiggly and leafy.
The jungle is green and luscious along the little road, whizzing past small white huts with thatched roofs where families cook over fires and kids chase each other on the forest floor. As though dropped from the sky, the base of the mountain appears suddenly, and we point our motorcycles skyward.
Upon reaching the first switchback, the rest of the world is already far below, mountains poking the clouds and green meeting blue somewhere in a distant land. A lake glimmers. Surrealism nudges reality slowly over the cliff’s edge until I’m parallel with the summits of neighbouring mountains.
I lost sight of the boys’ gliding heads a few mountain peaks ago but soon catch up with Shay, who is taking photos at one of the switchbacks, waiting. Eventually, we find Aviel stopped in the setting of Snow White’s magical forest where tall, lanky trees rise from a glowing bed of lime-coloured moss, their straight trunks shedding white bark like a bird molting feathers. We buy chai from a roadside stall and sip in the fairytale.
I lose the boys in minutes once we get going again, but as the ground levels and a sign– ‘Kodaikanal’– appears, so does Shay. “I wait for you,” he says in his thick Israeli accent, and mashes his helmet back onto his head.
We ride until finally spotting Aviel at the top of the mountain, where the sun has now set and it is suddenly freezing. We shove our arms into the sleeves of our jackets. The town is busy. It’s a tiered city of chromatic buildings, fading to pastels in the waning light. We’re searching for Vattakanal. We navigate the steep streets of the town, asking randoms how to find our destination. It’s like the lost city– no one seems to know how to find it and our maps and GPS don’t recognize Vattakanal as much of anything; apparently its cartography hasn’t been gotten around to.
Now pitch black, a sole man claims to know the place and leads us to a desolate area, then down a strange, narrow, dirt path traumatized with potholes. From my headlight, I make out a battered fence that seems to be the only flimsy thing between this path and oblivion. After ten minutes blindly bumping down the inky trail, light appears! Actual people are walking around. We stop at a little place with menu items painted on the walls. A man and lady make us avocado sandwiches which turn out to be the best thing we’ve eaten, ever. Our hands thaw out on cups of hot chai. It is 8pm. It’s taken 14 hours to arrive here.
A group of Israelis offer to let us stay in their house for a shared fee. We hike up the hill to a place that is incredibly dirty and crammed with a bunch of exhausted-looking people. We thank them and move on, back down the mountain, and down the street where a sign points to a guesthouse up on the hill. Glutes burning, a man greets us at reception and we follow him up a vertical staircase to a dandy room located above the clouds. In the light of the moon, which is impossibly below us, we can see that this slightly pricier accomodation will let us wake to a priceless view at 4000 metres of altitude.
A small kerfuffle over money ensues, but doesn’t last long. After 14 hours on a bike seat, subsisting mainly on cookies and chai, then hiking up mountainsides to look for a place to sleep, we’re all ready for a shower and bed.
After a warm bucket bath, I sit in the room. Shay turns on some music and hops in the washroom. Aviel lays in the bed next to mine, wrapped in his mint-green hoodie, telling me that my blog posts are too long to interest anyone.
“I think that people who are in jail would be a good audience for you,” he says. Then, “Hey, remember that time you tried to kiss me a couple days ago? And I just said ‘No, not interested?'”
I laugh. Hard. It’s the first time we’ve spoken about the drunken night in the laundry room when I told him I just want to be friends. And just like that, awkwardness walks dejectedly out of the room.
Shay exits the bathroom and falls face first next to Aviel. The three of us snooze in the room above the clouds.